Teenagers a Guide to Fostering Adolescents
A guide to fostering adolescents
There are reasons for this and the issues can be fixed. Caring for teenagers can bring some of the most rewarding experiences you could have, to provide a young person with a safe space, both emotionally and physically, to nurture and work with them, to guide them through education, and then give them the skills to go on into the adult world, to provide them with interdependence through staying put or your continued care is wonderful.
However it is also extremely challenging at times as they enter the existential and uncertain time of adolescence, the pressures on them from every angle are extreme, and helping them navigate this can be hard.
What you need more than anything is a good grounding in trauma-informed therapeutic care and importantly a top-class team of professionals working closely with you supporting the placement every step of the way”
Sarah Anderson, Founder, FosterWiki
Introduction to a guide to fostering adolescents
Teenagers in care are the least likely to get placed, yet at any one time, the percentage of looked-after children who are teenagers is usually around 50%.
A guide to fostering teenagers is worthy of several book volumes, so we have condensed some of the basics into our page, hopefully, it will lead those of you who want to or currently fostering teenagers to source further information.
There is no such thing as a stereotypical teenager in care, they will all be unique, from young people who are engaging in school or college settled and with no behavioural issues other than standard teenage behaviour, right through to a young person who maybe takes drugs, has been recruited by a gang, or who is at risk of child exploitation, and every single thing in between.
There are many carers who specialise in working with adolescents but equally, there is a huge number who are reluctant to take on this demographic of young people.
This may be because they have formally found teens difficult to work with in the past, it may be from a ‘bad’ experience or may also be by vicarious reputation, things they have heard from others and also being discouraged by the outcomes.
However nearly 50% of children in care are teenagers and the simple fact is there are not enough carers to look after them in family settings, many end up in inappropriate settings and multiple placement breakdowns are commonplace, and whilst residential homes are an important part of the equation and support some teenagers better, there are many children who end up in residential as there are not enough foster carers equipped to work with them.
It is also important that those carers who only wish to care for younger children understand that these small children ultimately become young people and teenagers. There is an expectation that because these children have been part of our family somehow as teenagers they will be ‘easier’.
However, for all the reasons seen in this FosterWiki page, looked-after teenagers have a great deal more to cope with during adolescence than their peers, despite their settled placements, adolescence is a time when trauma can resurface, and they will have multiple questions and complex feelings to process.
With the right support, education and guidance it is more than possible to navigate these challenges. Working with adolescents is not difficult or complicated but in some ways significantly different to caring for young children.
Under what circumstances are teenagers in care?
- You may have fostered a child for many years and they are transitioning into adolescence.
- A young person’s home life may have broken down in their teens and this is the first time they have come into care. Their parents may be unable to care for them.
- A previous placement, or placements, may have broken down and the young person is now being placed with you.
- They may be in residential care and are now looking to be placed with foster carers, this is often called “step down”, this may be because it is now deemed more desirable for them to be in a family setting or because there were no fostering places available at the time and as a result, they were placed in a residential home.
What is adolescence?
Maybey and Sorensen 1995
You can imagine the complexity of this for a looked-after teenager and one thing is for sure is that it’s not a linear progression with our young people, it is multidimensional and involves a gradual progression, often moving back and forwards. Some young people also move through adolescence more quickly than others.
Adolescence is a massive melting pot of developmental challenges, biological, cognitive, psychological, social, moral and spiritual.
Although teenagers’ behaviour can be difficult to comprehend, and sometimes hurtful and often stressful and worrying, it is the natural process of becoming an adult.
With surges of hormones, combined with struggling to find an identity, changes in their bodies and pressures with friendship groups, sexual exploration and trying to develop a sense of independence, it can be a really difficult and confusing time for the child or young person.
Why is adolescence difficult for a looked-after child
Teenagers in care have all the challenges of adolescence and a whole lot of things on top of that, most of all they are highly likely to carry a high level of trauma.
For traumatised children and young people in care that is more often than not the basic underlying unconscious driver of behaviour, with an inevitable impact on their mental health. I’ve fostered teens for 15yrs and there wasn’t one that was not in survival mode when they arrived, for it diminishes but never leaves them.
Trauma, attachment and ACEs leave life-long scars, and sadly for our looked-after children they rarely get the level of therapy they need to address these things.”
Sarah Anderson, Founder FosterWiki
Children in care carry trauma, this is due to adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), attachment issues and more, this will greatly impact adolescence, even if a child has
seemingly been settled for many years in foster care, the onset of adolescence can precipitate the surfacing or resurfacing of trauma.
However, a home life with a dedicated, skilled qualified carer can make a complete difference to that young person’s life, happiness and future.
Adverse Childhood experiences (ACEs)
We all face challenges but for the majority of the vulnerable children we care for the environments they grow up in, their family life and their experiences are adverse, which may have a traumatic and lifelong impact on their physical and mental health development and attachments.
Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) was a term originally developed in the US for the Adverse Childhood Experiences Survey which found as the number of ACEs increased in the population studied, so did the risk of experiencing a range of mental and physical health conditions in adulthood.
ACEs can be single or ongoing events or situations or threats to safety, they are highly stressful and occur during childhood or adolescence. In order to survive such difficult experiences significant social, emotional, neurobiological, psychological and behavioural adaptations need to be made.
The adaptations children and young people make due to ACEs are in the first instance, survival of the immediate environment, finding ways to mitigate or tolerate adversity, looking for safety and control that they can put in place and trying to make sense of their experience.
ACEs can resurface at different times throughout a person’s life, and adolescence is a key transition in which this trauma can either surface or resurface.
For more information read our Fosterwiki page on therapeutic foundations.
Understanding attachment and attachment styles are fundamental to fostering teens as it will have an influential impact on their lives, behaviours, feelings, their outcomes and our understanding of their behaviour and our work with them.
According to attachment theory, first developed in the 1950s, attachment style is shaped and developed in early childhood in response to our relationships and experiences with our earliest caregivers.
This means that from birth onwards a child will look to their caregiver (mum, dad or other) to meet all their needs. Babies and toddlers rely on adults to quite literally survive, in terms of food, drink, warmth, safety etc.
They also look to their caregivers for a sense of who they are, if their caregiver is attentive, loving and “attached” to them they will gain a sense of self-worth and safety, and they will feel significant and important to the caregiver and those around them.
If their caregiver is either not meeting these needs, or only occasionally doing so, they will feel unsafe, unwanted and unloved, and not knowing if they will survive from one day to the next.
So these early attachments or lack of them are fundamental to the child’s whole life and way of being, given that relationships, interaction with others, love and emotional security are what is essential to surviving life, love, learning, work and building our own families.
It’s really important to note that this attachment affects young people’s perception of all relationships, and it will often manifest in different ways in transitions through a young person’s life.
For more information read the Fosterwiki page on therapeutic foundations.
How does this relate to a teenager in care?
The importance of understanding trauma is fundamental to fostering teenagers, the most important thing you can do as a carer is to understand what underpins a young person’s behaviour and presentation. This enables you to work with them therapeutically, with empathy without judgement, with patience, kindness, and understanding and facilitate them to a better future.
Our young people’s attachments are rarely ‘secure’, they may have parents who have had no role models themselves, have attachment issues of their own or are not in a position or place enabling them to form strong bonds or attach to their child or young person or be attentive or meet their needs, therefore the child itself then develops attachment issues.
A well-attuned carer can readdress and challenge a child or young person’s attachment styles and early relationships. All relationships are shaped by past relationships, therefore, the young person will initially believe we are similar to their original caregiver.
So to begin with when vulnerable children and young people come into our care they will have a view of who we are that may not be correct. If their original caregiver was inconsistent the young person will likely not trust that you as a carer giver will be consistent.
It is therefore important that a looked-after child or young person experiences a good consistent parental figure in foster care, in order to show them a new experience, trust and understanding of a caregiver.
This is not always easy as young people may reject a carer over and over again, and they may display angry, destructive and unpredictable contradictory behaviour, carers need to be patient, empathic, responsive, regulated themselves and provide really consistent care.
ADHD, ASD, FASD, SEND, Mental Health & Disabled
Many children in care have Special Educational Needs and Disability (SEND) Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, Autistic Spectrum Disorder, Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders and other mental health issues and disorders that affect them.
This can compound the trauma experienced by teenagers in care, very often it has been difficult to access the diagnosis and support they need.
Access as much education with regards to these issues, however, always speak to the team around the child, it is their place to access medical and mental health support from appropriate professionals and settings.
The carers’ role is to advocate for their young person, and as frustrating as this can be sometimes when it seems things are not being done it is never the role of the carer to intervene or access these services directly for the young person in care.
What changes can you expect in adolescence?
- Physical changes in weight, height, sexual development, voice, and body hair.
- Feelings of embarrassment, self-consciousness, and low self-esteem.
- Anxious about appearance, out of step with friends developing at a different rate.
- Sexual exploration and experimentation, LGBTQ+.
- Self-harm, experimentation with drugs and alcohol.
- Challenging and changing peer relationships.
- Either wanting to be out with friends or in their bedrooms.
The difference between caring for young children and adolescents is their development of abstract thinking, some carers will say ‘my teenager has become so manipulative’ but it is mostly their new ability to look at situations in a different way.
The brain moves on from more concrete thinking to ideas and concepts. It is likely they will test out these new skills in different situations with varied success and failure.
The teen will become egocentric, in other words, self-involved and begin to act like they are on stage, they may feel untouchable, invincibly and like they can not be physically hurt – often labelled “risk-taking”.
This behavioural stage is often labelled as “attention seeking”, being “selfish” or “only thinking of themselves”. However, this is very much part of their development at this stage and a crucial part.
For all these reasons they often believe that no one else is capable of understanding how they are feeling.
This is a huge and often challenging stage for our teenagers as it brings their family dynamics sharply into focus, feelings as complex as abandonment, anger, rejection, loss, grief, feeling not good enough, confusion and disbelief.
This can be especially sharp if the family they are cared for provide a different model of the family unit and the contrast becomes stark.
It can mean they, for example, become aloof, want more time alone or with friends, feel misunderstood, reject your attempts to talk or show affection and appear sullen and moody.
This is a big issue during adolescence, even bigger for the children we care for. Failing to evolve and develop a personal identity will have negative implications and it can be hard for our young teens due to the backdrops of their lives.
The search for meaning and identity continues throughout our lives but begins in adolescence and is more pronounced at this time.
The young person also starts to become a ‘separate’ individual person at this time, they start to question all around them and develop their own ideas, something that can so often cause friction. It is however a natural part of the adolescent process and not a slight on those adults around them, a misconception that can often arise.
Identity is inclusive and will encompass family, culture, religion, sexuality, gender and more.
Our reaction to adolescence
Our own reactions to adolescent behaviour are very important, we have to remember that it’s not all about the young person, it is about the relationship, and the part we play in that relationship.
We may have embarked on foster care with fairly strong views about bringing up children and teenagers, it may be based on our own upbringings or bringing up our own children.
We will also have a personal ‘frame of reference’ which is all that we believe in, both morally, spiritually and ethically, plus an idea of how we think life is led.
The most important thing is to learn as much as possible about ourselves through quality trauma-informed therapeutic care qualifications, these should have a strong thread of the importance of knowing ourselves throughout.
Once you know more about yourself, your own triggers and preconceived ideas the more easily you can recognise them and put them to one side. Working with looked-after teenagers requires a whole new outlook, and a whole new way of reacting and relating, the foundation of which is in trauma-informed care.
When you learn to bracket off your own emotions and feelings you can then be helpful to the young person, and not only that, but it benefits you as a carer as your life will be calmer, your care will be more effective and outcomes will be better, with more placement stability and better relationships and connection to your foster children.
FosterWiki Top Tips
Foster care is delivered very differently by carers, who are all unique. The team at FosterWiki have put together a list of tips based on their experience, many of whom have been fostering teens with great outcomes for 15yrs+.
- When a child is displaying challenging behaviour or is withdrawn or depressed, angry or sad they are in communicating how they are feeling. Stay inquisitive, but not intrusive, be patient and engage gently, with empathy, authenticity and without judgment.
- Remember to examine your own feelings about your teenagers’ behaviour, be thoughtful, inquisitive and not reactive, explore your own frame of reference and how you are reacting, and work out your own triggers or ideals that are hard to let go of.
- Always step back from the situation, and remember there is always the underlying reason that your teenager is behaving in ways that can be challenging, and crucially, acknowledge they are probably not enjoying it either.
- You’re the adult, don’t react to a teenager with your own “inner teenager”, it sounds obvious but is not always easy.
- Don’t always rush to try and ‘fix’, sit alongside, listen, be ‘with’ them, hear what they say, reflect, and be authentic and non-judgemental.
- Being boundaried comes in many guises, it can include the boundaries we set ourselves in our own reactions and the boundaries we set with children and young people. Always remember to focus on positively framing ‘boundaries’.
- When it comes to boundaries, don’t do one thing one day and another thing a different day, sometimes it’s difficult as teenagers will push all the boundaries, but stay consistent as it gives them a safe framework.
- Access as much training and education as you can, it’s a very rewarding journey of continual learning. Focus on trauma-informed therapeutic care.
- Never take it personally, even if a child is displaying very challenging behaviour towards you it is very rarely about you. Take a deep breath, a step back and remind yourself self “This is not about me”.
- Allow teenagers their own space and privacy.
Expectation in the family home
Many carers use ‘house rules’ but this description of what works in your house can be problematic for young people, it’s often better to reframe house rules and have discussions around how they are for the young people as well as yourselves, for instance, if you have ‘tech time’ – a pre-set time for phones/tablets/PC’s to come downstairs and not to stay in bedrooms overnight.
Explain how helpful it is going to be for their well-being in terms of sleep and not engaging in difficult conversations or issues in the middle of the night when everything feels worse and no one is around to support them.
Other things like food in the room, smoking or vaping at the end of the garden etc… explain why and have a chat about it.
Another thing that is effective is asking young people what they think is reasonable and letting them suggest things, their suggestions will often surprise you, and it also then feels for them like something you have worked out together.
When a teenager arrives try not to bombard them with rules, boundaries and expectations.
Despite any outward behaviour they will be, without a doubt, traumatised, struggling, sad, angry, depressed, confused, grieving, lost, feeling rejected and more. Give them time to settle in, then chat to them not about ‘house rules’ but ‘we find it works well with us all here if we…’ or ‘what kind of things are you used to?
Be prepared to be flexible, compromise, open to discussion, thoughtful and above all understanding and kind, expect the unexpected and think of ways around things rather than tackling every single thing head on.
Preparing for interdependence, 16yrs+
As foster carers, preparing our young people and equipping them with emotional and physical skills and tools for independence is a big part of our role. You will hear the words ‘independence skills’ in reviews, reports and in your own supervision asking what the young people are learning what they can do and how prepared they are for independent living.
This will include cooking, washing, budgeting, admin and more.
At FosterWiki we like to call it ‘Interdependence’ as no young person should be trying to cope alone after leaving foster care, but should have a team around them, including their ex-foster carer (where appropriate) to support them.
FosterWiki has a wealth of information and learning in caring for adolescents, and getting ready for the time they reach 18 years old when they are no longer a child in care. Also, be aware, it happens that suddenly, the day they turn 18yrs so you need to be really prepared in advance and have everything in place.
It begins when a child becomes 16yrs and the ‘Pathway Plan’ is instigated. They will get a ‘Personal Advisor’, and there will also be the option for them to stay in foster care under the ‘Staying Put’ scheme, but it’s important you have a full understanding of these things and if they are right for the young person and you.
These are the things you will need to know about
- The Pathway Plan.
- Staying Put.
- Personal Advisors.
- The Local Offer.
- Missing (MISPER).
- County Lines.
- Supporting care leavers at university.
Disabled teenagers who are functioning younger will still experience teenage signs physically and sexually. They may have younger emotional needs but physically be what they should at age-wise.
This can be very frustrating for them when they don’t truly understand. This can cause worry for them, which can lead them to display challenging behaviours as they are unable to express how they feel.
If you are fostering disabled young people there are some significant differences in fostering disabled teenagers, here is a guide to fostering young people 16yrs+
Contact and Family Time
Contact and family time with the birth family can change significantly for teenagers. They start to have more unsupervised contact in their later teenage years, and even younger teens will become drawn to their family, this is understandable, they will be exploring identity and roots and it will become important for them.
So how does it work and what do the fostering experts say?
” Young people may arrange their own contact with parents and family and notify their carers and social workers when this is happening, this will be agreed upon according to the care plan.
Unsupervised ad hoc contact can be challenging and will require different kinds of support and management on the part of the foster carer.”
However we have learned to sit with them, however hard that might be for us, and listen and become attuned to their non-verbal emotional expressions as well as the verbal ones.”
For more detailed information on contact read the FosterWiki page on contact & family time, what is contact , and FosterWiki’s Top Ten Tips for contact and family time.
Mobile phones and the Internet
Mobile phones are a huge part of a modern teenager’s life.
It is a difficult thing to manage on so many levels, and at a certain point with teenagers, you are unable to monitor and safeguard them the way you may want to. At this point, education is key both for yourselves and your young people, so you can keep them up to date on how to be safe.
Here is the FosterWiki guide to Mobile Phones on the FosterWiki website.
Here is the FosterWiki guide to internet safety
Take care of yourself, so you can care for them and look after yourself as well, teenagers can be all-consuming and exhausting. Take care and reach out for support with your mental health. This page is a comprehensive overview of foster carers’ mental health can be found here .
Information, Help and Support
Help and support created for foster carers, by foster carers, we are the experts by experience. We have the first foster carers knowledge bank.
Access both the open pages and members area. Both are free to access and footprint-free. The member’s area gives you privileged confidential access to FosterWiki’s experts by experience for advice and guidance. You will also find short courses and guides from the foster carer’s perspective, top tips, allegation help, templates, and the ability to add to FosterWiki. With more content being uploaded regularly.
Please let us know what information or advice pages you would find useful and we will put them in place. https://fosterwiki.com/register/